It may be hard to believe, but Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive franchise has been in a state of hibernation for some seven years, with its last appearance marking the launch of the Xbox 360 at the end of 2005. At that time, the fighting genre was in something of lull, with the heavy-hitting franchises playing to a loyal but small niche audience. Time, however, as it is wont to do, has changed everything, and the seven year gap has seen the re-emergence of the fighting genre into the mainstream, in particular thanks to the remarkable and clever updating of venerable genre stalwarts, Streetfighter and Mortal Kombat. Suddenly, fisticuffs are cool again, so it comes as no surprise that Dead or Alive is ready to return to stake its claim. Dead or Alive 5 is here, brasher, bawdier and bouncier than the series has ever been, with a revamped single player story mode and a host of other tweaks to the core fighting mechanics. Without aid of its creator, Tomonobu Itagaki, there was concern that Dead or Alive may have lost its way. Fortunately, such fears were unfounded: Dead or Alive 5 plays as well as the series ever has. The risk, however, is that Team Ninja’s adherence to formula may mean that there is ultimately little to distinguish the series’ fifth entry from the fourth.
Team Ninja has obviously kept a close eye on its competition over the years, and appears to have taken stock of Netherrealm Studios revolutionary work on Mortal Kombat and its celebrated single player story mode. Yes, the the hitherto incomprehensible and incoherent narratives of past Dead or Alive games are now laid bare in a single player story mode, replete with voice acting and cutscenes which attempt to give context to the fights. The ‘story’, such as it is, casts the player as various characters, including the two newcomers, Mila and Rig, and series’ mainstays Kasumi, Ayane and Ryu Hayabusa, and presents their tales out of order, shuffling back and forth along the chronology of events which take place before and during the nefarious DOATEC corporation’s ‘Dead or Alive’ tournament. While players benefit from the opportunity to learn new techniques and sample a wide array of characters, the story mode in Dead or Alive 5 is a total bust; the cutscenes are crude, poorly-staged and utterly nonsensical, and many will be hard-pressed to discern any meaning from the random dialogue exchanged between the game’s creepy plastic mannequins between bouts. Unlocking titles and trinkets may be satisfying for the devoted, but even diehards will have difficulty engaging with the narrative of Dead or Alive 5, which is scarcely appreciable on the level of irony. While it is heartening to see Team Ninja take a leaf out of the book of Mortal Kombat, it is a shame that it has failed to execute on the concept.
Putting the narrative to one side (a sound plan), it is plain that Dead or Alive 5 still has it where it counts. The franchise has always been a series which has been welcoming and accessible for newcomers, with its fast-paced combat which is conducive to button mashing, and this latest entry is no different. Playing out across various standard modes such as the time-worn arcade ladder, time attack, survival and versus modes, the fighting in Dead or Alive 5 is as sharp and crisp as ever, with the focus remaining of frenzied combos intermittently intermixed with counters (coming in low, middle, and high varieties) and throws. The button set up is simple, with a single button allocated to each of punching, kicking, throwing and blocking actions, and it is remarkable how easy it is for amateurs to grasp the controls and pull off impressive moves by mashing furiously. New to the series is the introduction of high-powered charge moves which can be activated when your character’s health drops below a certain threshold, and players can now choose where to fling their opponents when throwing them, which plays into the game’s emphasis on environmental activity. Yes, the stages in Dead or Alive 5 are as crazy and as over the top as ever, taking place on top of exploding skyscrapers and in active Middle Eastern war-zones, and it is one of the game’s cleverest touches that it allows the genre’s typically rigid camera to swivel on its axis to present the fights and stages in which they take place in as cinematic and exciting a manner as is possible. Combine the series’ rapid combat with exploding barrels, tigers and tanks, and it is no wonder that most fights occur in a flurry of sparks and smoke over the course of a number of rapidly changing locales. Truth be told, these environmental tricks are about as far as Team Ninja is willing to go in order to shake the series up, and while they are fun and exciting, they don’t do much to dispel the familiarity of the core experience.
Visually speaking, not a lot has changed from Dead or Alive 4, which was a great looking game at the time of its launch. Character models are generally pleasing to look at in the same way that one might appreciate the sculpting of an action figure, with plastic expressions and bouncy-ball breasts being the order of the day, and the stages themselves are fairly simplistic for all the excitement engendered by their interactivity. This simplicity, while often aesthetically pleasing in its cleanliness, often comes across as sparse and cheap, and overall many of the game’s levels are lacking in texture and detail. Dead or Alive 5 moves at a decent clip, but this is obviously a game developed on a conservative budget which affords it none of the lushness of a Soulcalibur V or the cheerful chunkiness of Streetfighter IV. Sadly, the same goes for the game’s audio, which comprises some comical English voice acting (with the option for the original Japanese) and an eclectic, but frankly awful, soundtrack. Ultimately, the worst accusation one could level at Dead or Alive 5 is that it is barely distinguishable from its seven year-old predecessor – a shame, particularly given that many would reasonably expect some appreciable progression in presentation between two games which bookend a console generation.
Online options extend the game’s lifespan beyond its fairly standard single player suite (the four-hour story mode aside), but in our experience Dead or Alive 5 boasts fairly unimpressive net-code which often results in lethargic, laggy matches on the Playstation Network, undermining the series’ core strengths, namely its emphasis on timing and split-second decision-making. Performance may vary, and the experience may improve subject to future patches, but the unassailable reality is that Dead or Alive 5 is an unsatisfying experience at the time of its launch. Fortunately, when played by two experienced opponents sitting on the same couch, Dead or Alive 5 is still as sharp, satisfying and exciting as any of its contemporaries, and despite the relative paucity of content for the solitary player (which is an increasingly serious issue for fighting games which are sold at full retail price), it should provide hours of entertainment if there is local competition to be found.
Taken on its own terms, Dead or Alive 5 is a competent fighter with solid fundamentals. Judged alongside its peers, however, and it is slightly lacking in a number of areas, from its cut-rate presentation to its sloppy online performance and lackluster single player offering. This is Team Ninja operating on autopilot, injecting a few nifty ideas onto a well-worn template and producing a game which meets but seldom exceeds specifications. This is a safe, uninspiring game, likely to appeal to fans of the series for whom this is a welcome dose of the same-old, and totally unlikely to catch on with the masses on account of its pervy attitude and lack of an iconic cast. Is that enough in this day and age? Is it sufficient for a game to do the expected, and little more? We think so. Dead or Alive 5 is a good, honest fighter with accessibility, depth and intricacy – as long as expectations are kept in check, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had.